Making Good Design Equitable Design: Miller Hull Discusses Importance of Equity in Modern Architecture

Miller Hull, San Diego, Seattle, University of Washington, Hans Rosling Center for Population Health

By Catherine Sweeney

As society progresses, architecture firms are shifting their practices to implement designs that move in the same direction. One architecture firm, Miller Hull Partnership, said moving forward, firms will need to strive for environmentally conscious design practices in order to achieve modern equitable design. 

The Seattle–based architecture firm has been designing sustainable and equitable spaces since its founding in 1977. Danielle Buttacavoli, a new principal architect at the firm’s San Diego studio, is aiding in pushing these ideas further, with nearly 20 years of experience designing equitable spaces as both an architect and urban designer. 

“My foundation on the planning side really allows me to have a greater appreciation for the context around the project and the community a project is going into and also all of the community engagement that I do with my work that I did in the past. I feel like that experience in my past kind of really strengthens the equitable design component,” Buttacavoli said. 

Buttacavoli explained designing equitable spaces means not only providing affordable housing options, but also understanding a community’s history through outreach and engagement. Additionally, understanding what amenities a community lacks — whether retail, outdoor recreation opportunities or other important amenities — can also help developers and architects in designing a space appropriate for the end user.

In October, the firm completed work on one such space, the Hans Rosling Center for Population Health at The University of Washington. The newest addition to the campus totals 300,000 square feet and serves as communal space for students, faculty and researchers to address poverty, equity and healthcare-related issues. The $230 million project was funded in part by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

“It’s really all about being inclusive with design and thinking about the bigger picture and everyone who is going to be interacting with a project or impacted by a project.” Buttavavoli said. “Part of it is really acknowledging the history of how our towns and cities have been developed over the years and the legacy of racism. I think definitely in the last few years with the Black Lives Matter Movement, it’s really brought to the forefront just the legacy of racism on our built environment and what that means and what we might need to consider through that lens in our work and the way that shapes our urban environment.”

In addition to equity, sustainability has come to the forefront of how modern projects are being designed. Through the use of cleaner materials and energy-efficient designs, Buttacavoli said the goal is to not only create less harmful buildings but buildings that actually aid the environment they are a part of. 

The architecture firm has implemented sustainable design throughout a number of projects over the years, including in their own studio spaces. Most recently, the company completed work on its 4,600 square-foot San Diego studio space. The net-zero building is Living Building Petal-certified and also allows for a deeper connection to the surrounding environment through large outdoor spaces, natural light and landscaping. 

“I think the whole notion of sustainable design within the built environment was framed around how we limit energy consumption, and that’s kind of transformed over the years to, ‘How can we do more? Can we think of this in terms of greenhouse gases and the carbon footprint of this building?’”

She continued, “The whole idea of sustainability has really evolved over the years to be this really in-depth conversation of ‘how are we making something look less bad’ to ‘how can this project actually improve the environment around it?’ We have the ability to add to the ecosystems within the neighborhood in the way we design and locate the landscape around the building and bring some of that nature and biophilia inside.” 

However, Buttacavoli noted there is still room for continued progress. Moving forward, both architecture firms and developers will need to find creative solutions in addressing sustainability issues, the impacts of previous works on the environment and current issues in a given neighborhood. In addition, along the West Coast, she said cities need to address and continue to find creative solutions for affordable housing as rental rates in the region continue to climb. 

“Equitable design is really important, and I hope we reach a point where the idea of good design is equitable design. I think in the architectural industry we use a lot of buzz words and I think to a certain end, it’s really important to hone in on the importance of a certain concept or attribute to consider in the design process or in the design itself. I feel like the notion of equity isn’t just important for the project, but also within our industry and within the workplace as well,” Buttacavoli said.